PLAYBILL.COM'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, May 31-June 6: Hang Time

News   PLAYBILL.COM'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, May 31-June 6: Hang Time
 
Is it me or is time dragging in the weeks before the June 15 Tony Award ceremony? In the past, a journalist covering the awards season barely had time to breathe and slug back a cup of black coffee in the days between when the Tony nominations were announced and when the trophies were actually handed out. It was hectic and non-stop. But this year it feels like a week at the cabin upstate in late May and early June could have been easily arranged.
The Tony Award
The Tony Award Photo by Tony Award Productions

And there's still more than a week to go! It's actually not my imagination. We do have more time on our hands. In 2005, 28 days passed between the Tony nominations announcement and the awards ceremony. In 2006, it was 26 days, and it was 26 days again in 2007. This year, fully 33 suns will have passed across the sky between the "And the nominees are…" and "And the Tony Award goes to…" More than a month!

June 15 is also, to my knowledge, the latest date the Tony Awards have taken place on in the awards' 62-year history. Back in the early years, the event usually took place in April. (One year it was even in March!). As recently as 1976, it was still in April, but it jumped to early June the next year. It stayed there in the single digits of June until 2006, when June 11 was chosen for the broadcast. Since then it's stayed in the middle of the month. So, just as the Oscars have in recent years made an effort to compress the award season, the Tonys seem to be intent on making its season longer. At this rate, in ten years we'll celebrating the Tonys and our nation's birth the same weekend.

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Celia Keenan-Bolger and Mary Faber in Saved.
photo by Joan Marcus

Off-Broadway had some significant openings this week. Saved, the new musical satire with heart about high school kids struggling to grasp the idea of faith, opened June 3 in its world premiere at Off-Broadway's Playwrights Horizons. The creative team was an interesting lot: Composer-lyricist Michael Friedman and co-lyricists John Dempsey and Rinne Groff and director Gary Griffin. Critics offered mixed appraisals of the musical about a religious high-schooler named Mary, played by Celia Keenan-Bolger, who tries to "cure" her gay boyfriend and gets pregnant in the process. Some found it more reasoned and thoughtful than the film that inspired it. Others said that, given the subject matter, the show was fairly tame and predictable. MCC Theatre unveiled the latest by its prolific golden boy, Neil LaBute, the third play in a trilogy about the human obsession of physical looks, reasons to be pretty. (The first two installments were The Shape of Things and Fat Pig.) Critics were pleasantly surprised with the work, which is considerably longer than most LaBute opuses. They found it more tender, hopeful and funny than past LaBute plays. As Variety put it, "This is a thoughtful, mature play without the sour superiority or shocking twists and dark revelations that have become formulaic in LaBute's work." Atlantic Theater Company's opened Annie Baker's new work about empathy and human connection, Body Awareness, and reviews on the whole recognized Baker's understated, humane voice as one to follow in the future. Star JoBeth Williams, in particular, was rewarded with some admiring words.

Finally, late sculptress Louise Nevelson was given the Edward Albee treatment in the Signature Theatre Company's world premiere of Occupant, starring Larry Bryggman and Mercedes Ruehl. An earlier 2002 Signature production had shut down due to star Anne Bancroft's falling ill. Critics respected the effort, but some thought it bit mild, stiff and unadventurous when set by the playwright's usual standard.

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Broadway Across America announced June 2 that it had assumed the role of lead producer on the Gershwin-scored Harry Connick musical comedy vehicle Nice Work If You Can Get It, and that director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall was no longer attached to the Broadway-aimed project. Most of the original producers and creative team of the musical left with Marshall. This surprising turn of events was the wellspring of much of the Broadway gossip running this week, particularly since Marshall and Connick had proved such a fruitful team in The Pajama Game — the show that made Connick a bankable Broadway star. The New York Post followed up the news with a behind-the-scenes report, which featured more that your usual share of backstage disagreements and acrimonious splits. Hey, when Gershwin wrote "Nice Work If You Can Get It," he wasn't necessarily talking about a position on the staff of an aborning Broadway musical. No, that would more likely be "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off."

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Columbia Pictures announced June 5 that it will join forces with CBS Films to create a new film version of the classic musical My Fair Lady that will be produced by Duncan Kenworthy and Cameron Mackintosh. The film will utilize the legendary Lerner and Loewe score, but will adapt Lerner's original book by drawing additional material from Shaw's Pygmalion, upon which the musical is based. Producers hope to "dramatize as believably as possible for present-day audiences the emotional highs and lows of Eliza Doolittle as she undergoes the ultimate makeover, transforming under the tutelage of Professor Henry Higgins from a Cockney flower girl to a lady," according to press notes.

Producers plan to film on location in the original London settings of Covent Garden, Drury Lane, Tottenham Court Road, Wimpole Street and Ascot racecourse, which is very cool.

And then there's casting, which is all any theatre fan really cares about when these filmed musicals are announced — mainly because the person who eventually gets cast is very rarely the one who has the musical chops and deserves the part. "The casting of Eliza is crucial," said Mackintosh, "and we are currently in discussion with a major international star to play the role." Variety reported that film actress Keira Knightley is currently in talks to star as Eliza. Somebody check Marni Nixon's availability.

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When will playwrights cease being affected by Chekhov's Three Sisters? Truly no classic play exercises "the agony of influence" on modern dramatists as does this tale of turn-of-the-century Russian life. There are echoes of it in Wendy Wasserstein's The Sisters Rosensweig and the current August: Osage County by Tracy Letts. The Wooster Group adapted the play into something called Brace Up!. Januz Glowacki wrote an Off-Broadway play a few years back called The Fourth Sister. Playwright Theresa Rebeck recently published a satirical novel called "Three Girls and Their Brother." And on and on. Enough already!

Now comes Relatively Close, a new family comedy from Chicago playwright James Sherman, set to begin June 6 at Victory Gardens Theater. According to press notes, "Three sisters [Beth, Jan and Marlene] return to the family vacation home on the shores of Lake Michigan, where they spent the summers of their youth. Now the sisters are grown, the parents are gone, and the house is just sitting there. One sister wants to keep it, one wants to sell it, and the other just wants everyone to get along."

Yes, but will any of them ever get back to Moscow? Moscow, Wisconsin, I mean.

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Finally, there are very few people about whom you can say, without them theatre would be different today, television would be different, film would be different.

One such is Paul Sills, one of the founders of the famous Chicago-based improvisational comedy group known as The Second City, who died June 2 at his home in Door County, WI. He was 80. Improv comedy is such a part of our everyday entertainment now that we take it for granted. Same goes for "Saturday Night Live"-style sketch comedy, and the movies made by its graduates, from Mike Myers to Adam Sandler to Will Ferrell. But without Sills and his theories regarding theatre games and spontaneous stage invention — drawn largely from the ideas and practices of his mother, drama teacher, Viola Spolin — it's difficult to say where American comedy would be today. Second City grew out of the Compass Players, a 1950s cabaret revue show that was started by Sills and some undergraduates at the University of Chicago. Second City got underway in 1959, with Sills as its director. Beginning with its first season on television, in 1975, "SNL" began raiding the Chicago institution for featured players. Among the graduates who worked with Mr. Sills are John Belushi, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, Stephen Colbert, Mike Nichols, Barbara Harris, Alan Arkin, Del Close, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, George Wendt, Shelly Long and Elaine May.

Mr. Sills never did become a star. As Nichols commented, he was always interested in process, never the end results. He went on to form a series of troupes which emphasized the improvisational techniques he helped introduce, and until the end never stopped working and teaching.

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